“Not all those who wander are lost.”
The idea of ‘learning through discovery’ has fallen so out of fashion in educational circles, that it seems nigh on subversive to talk about it in a positive light. (Luckily, I’m not big on being fashionable, but I do love a bit of subversion.) The moment you mention learning through discovery (and sometimes even when you don’t) you are likely to be met by people saying things like: “Don’t waste time! Just tell them!” or “The teachers are the experts; the children are the novices!” or “They won’t just pick this up naturally, you know, it’s not like walking or talking!” or “But the science says this is the best way to learn!” I don’t think that ‘learning through discovery’ is a very good name for what I mean, when I talk about playful and child led approaches to learning. To my mind, I am talking about learning through experience, with the child as an active agent in the process. I think that there is a subtle but very important difference between this and ‘just discovering’ things.
For the first four or five years of their lives, children learn almost entirely through direct experiences. No one sits them down at a desk and instructs them in how to talk and walk. They pick these things up through a process of ‘discovering’ them. A baby is born into a world of confusion – bright lights, strange sounds, unfocused images and blurred impressions. If there are no complications with the birth, the midwife places her on your chest, against your heart, and she has her very first experience of ‘mum’. She begins to know who you are, to learn your smell and to build a bond with you. Over the coming weeks, months and years she will learn a huge amount – she will develop more rapidly in the first five years of her life than at any other point. And yet mostly she will not do this by people directly instructing her; she will develop through a process of observing, and imitating, and experimenting, and trying, and failing, and trying again, alongside and with the support of the people who share her life. If you shut her in a room, away from other human beings, you would slow down her development dramatically. It is the fact of her being in and part of the wider world that helps her learn and grow in knowledge.
What, then, is the role of the adult in all this? Are we supposed to just stand by and watch, in the hope that our children will somehow stumble across counting, times tables, and the Theory of Relativity if they spend long enough exploring? Is the parent or educator simply a ‘facilitator’ of learning, who never tells the child anything at all? Clearly this is not the case, especially as they get older, and learning becomes more complex and more abstract. To my mind, our job is two fold: first, we provide the child with a range of experiences from which they can learn; then we walk alongside them to support their learning as it happens, by sharing the knowledge we have. Sometimes the experience will be a hands on, live, breath-taking first hand experience – a trip to the theatre or the beach, a forest school session, a school farm. Other times, the experience will be the teacher explaining something complex to the child, or the child practising a repetitive skill. But an important factor for me, and I believe for the child, is them having some sense of agency in what they are learning. Some choice, or input, or opinion, or interpretation, or personal response. The adult throws a wide range of experiences at the child, and I think the child should get the chance to throw some stuff back. If you only ever tell children what you think about the world, when will they ever get the chance to figure out what they think for themselves?
The whole debate about how we should educate our children comes down to values, which is where every discussion about education should really start. If you feel that the most important value of ‘an education’ is for children to get the biggest amount of good passes at GCSE and A Level, which will let them make choices about their lives through an academic route, and earn ‘social mobility’, then you will focus on getting them to do well in tests. (Some people refer to this as ‘making them cleverer’, although I’m not entirely convinced by that.) An efficient way of getting children to pass tests is to tell them lots of things, then to get them to memorise those things, and this is therefore the logical route for you to take. At school, you fill them full of adult directed and adult chosen knowledge, related to what will be in the exams, and then you send them away with their exam passes, to work their own way out of inequality (if they can). If this is your viewpoint then, were we to allocate school time to take children on trips, you would logically want those trips to have an impact on their grades.
If, on the other hand, your most important value for ‘an education’ is for the child to take ownership of her life, to make decisions based on her personal viewpoint, and to follow the path that her heart dictates (which might not necessarily be about her intellect) then you probably won’t be quite so focused on the tests. If you think that social mobility is a fault of society, and a responsibility of government not schools to fix, then you will take a different attitude to how and what education should be. As a result, you will value different kinds of learning experiences, beyond that of children sitting in rows of desks, listening to the teacher and being drilled in a set of facts and skills to help them pass their exams. You might feel that ‘closing the gap’ should be more about giving children access to varied life experiences, and helping them learn what they think about those experiences, rather than focusing on the academic at all costs. You might focus on emotional well being, over and above intellectual prowess.
When we took our children out of school to go on a Road School trip, we didn’t want the experience to be ‘like school, but on the move’. We wanted our children to know in a way that was not the same as being in a class of 29 other children, with a teacher, in a classroom. We wanted to immerse them first hand in places, and cultures, and landscapes. We wanted them to know what volcanoes and modern art and history and languages and architecture and cultures were like by experiencing them first hand, rather than by being direct instructed about them, or by reading about them in a book. I think we panic too much sometimes about the linear nature of knowledge; about how children must know one thing, in order to know another. We forget that life is made up of a series of twists and turns, and that we don’t necessarily end up where we thought we would, when we first started out. We talk as though a day (or a week, or a month, or a year) out of school would be a disaster for a child, as though learning is imprisoned in school. And we forget that there is a big wide world full of experiences out there, just waiting for us to wander by.